Our History

One of the more interesting bits of folklore surrounding the Bowersock Dam comes from the local fishermen’s tales about the fish they have caught, and of course, about the ones they did not. The next page tells the story behind this part of our dam’s reputation.

J.D. BowersockWhen people think of the Bowersock Mills, most believe that Justin DeWitt (J. D.) Bowersock was the man who built the original dam across the Kansas River, or the “Kaw.” In fact, this honor goes to Orlando Darling, a post-Civil War businessman in Lawrence. Darling owned several manufacturing businesses and the Kaw’s only ferry service. Darling, along with many other Lawrence manufacturers, desperately needed a source of power for his businesses.

The mid-1800’s saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and by the post-Civil War era, industrialization had spread to the frontier, including Kansas. Undeniably, industrialization required a source of power. For many years, the city of Lawrence relied primarily on the Kaw Valley’s wood supply. By the early 1870’s, however, most of the wood within a one-day’s wagon haul from Lawrence had been depleted. The rising cost of wood brought Lawrence’s first energy crisis.

The city of Lawrence sought to lower the cost of power for manufacturers such as Darling, and as Kenneth Middleton observed in his treatise, Manufacturing in Lawrence, Kansas, “two or three organizations were formed to prospect for coal and one gets the impression that there must have been in Lawrence and vicinity an abandoned coal shaft in every other back yard.” Yet the search for coal quickly proved abortive, and Lawrence’s hopes turned to the potential source of water power.

From the town’s perspective, the completion of a dam across the Kaw would set Lawrence apart from other frontier towns. At that time, Lawrence, Leavenworth, and Kansas City were roughly the same size in population and competed head to head for new business. With a dam, Lawrence would have the necessary power source to become one of the largest frontier manufacturing centers.

Orlando Darling, a civil engineer by profession, was a builder who also owned a sawmill, a flour mill, a stone quarry, and, as mentioned above, the local and only ferry service across the Kaw. In order to run his businesses, Darling leased much of the levee land surrounding the river. Seeing an opportunity in Lawrence’s energy crisis, Darling proposed building a dam of stone across the Kaw. A dam would provide a constant source of power for Lawrence’s growing economy, including Darling’s own businesses. Facing ever-increasing fuel prices, Lawrence agreed to help Darling.

On September 23, 1872, Darling signed an agreement with the city to build a dam. Darling then combined his interests with several other Lawrencians, including the then mayor of Lawrence, Washington Hadley, and founded the Lawrence Land and Water Company (LL&W Co.). Under the terms of the contract, Darling would fund the construction of the dam. In addition, Darling would charge no more than 25% of the cost of steam power and was liable for damages if the dam forced the Kaw over its banks. In return, the city granted Darling ownership of the levee in perpetuity. The town also agreed to buy enough power to operate the town’s water works and to give Darling $6,000 to help cover expenses. The city of Lawrence further specified, however, that upon failure to provide adequate water power, Darling would lose the right to the dam and to the lease.

Fate stood against Darling, for in the winter of 1873, a large ice-gorge gave way, destroying the northern flume and demolishing a good part of the dam. Completely frustrated with the turn of events, Darling resigned and the Lawrence Land and Water Company took over the property, completing the dam without his help. By 1874, Lawrence had a dam providing the city with mechanical power. (The first centralized electric power generating station in the world was not completed until 1882 by Thomas Edison in New York City.)

The flood of 1873 proved to be the first of many floods to destroy or severely damage the dam across the Kaw. The Lawrence Land and Water Company, too, failed to make the dam hold. With every spring and the return of high waters, a considerable section of the dam washed out, and in 1876, the LL&W Co. went into receivership. Yet the power company did not suffer alone, for those who had counted on the dam’s success faced imminent failure as well. Before the initial completion of the dam in 1874, the 2,500 horse-power had been fully contracted, and immediately upon the dam’s completion, Darling had strung 1,200 feet of cable from the water wheel to power the machinery of various enterprises. Multiple Lawrence businesses, then, even if they had not already learned to rely on the dam’s motive power, had looked forward to its arrival. As many observed, few would profit or could even draw power from the dam for the first five years. An article in 1877 remarked, “We always notice that it cheers up the laborers when there is dam building going on. They are the only class as yet that have got much out of the dam and some of them have made a pretty good thing of it.”

Shortly after the dam was completed in July of 1874, James H. Gower (father-in-law of J. D. Bowersock) arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, from Iowa City. (Gower did not relocate his family until 1877.) In connection with other parties, Gower erected a flouring mill known as the Douglas County Mills and contracted for water power from LL&W Co. Gower, too, along with the other manufacturers in Lawrence who needed cheap energy, had a stake in the struggle to make the dam hold.

In a statement given the year before his death in 1922, Bowersock summarized his family’s arrival and entrance into the Lawrence business community:

I, J. D. Bowersock, and family, including James H. Gower, came to Lawrence in 1877. A few days after our arrival in Lawrence in 1877 there was another washout of part of the dam, which compelled the appointment of a Receiver for the Water Power Company, and, under the Receiver, the Court ordered Debentures to be issued and sold to complete the work.

The Water Power was, by order of the Court, directed to be sold for the benefit of the Debenture holders. The property was sold by the Sheriff on the 9th day of January, and was purchased by James H. Gower in my name, J. D. Bowersock, and the Sheriff’s Deed was issued to J. D. Bowersock and sale confirmed by the Court.

Gower had purchased the debentures of the dam, so in effect, in purchasing LL&W Co., Gower had assumed his own debt. Ultimately, Gower never got a chance to work on the dam. Upon Gower’s death in 1879, Bowersock stepped in and took charge of the company and the dam’s repair.

Fortunately for Bowersock, this time around efforts to create a solid dam came to fruition, and immediately upon the completion of the dam, Bowersock began to sell power to Lawrence merchants. The 1878 repairs held firm until a small break occurred in 1885. This break both proved much smaller than earlier breaks and proved easily reparable. In the eyes of Lawrence citizens, Bowersock had earned his new name, “Master of the Kaw”.

The success of the dam made Lawrence stand out as a frontier town. In 1880, the only two states west of the Mississippi using water power were Minnesota and Kansas. While at that point only two Lawrence businesses, Douglas County Mills and Delaware Flour Mill, relied entirely on water power, by the mid-1880s, the dam had been stabilized and Lawrence had a reliable source of cheap mechanical water power. By 1885, twelve water wheels drove two flouring mills, a paper mill, two elevators, a twine factory, shirt factory, two machine shops, the Leis chemical works, two printing offices, the barb wire works and a few other minor industries. Two of the customers were the Lawrence Journal and the Lawrence World, predecessors to today’s Lawrence Journal World. The two flouring mills included, of course, Bowersock’s Douglas County Mills, which was very successful by this time, producing 500 barrels of flour per day.

Yet the Kaw still had a few surprises in store. In February 1888, a huge ice jam up the river from Lawrence broke, sending a large wave of water and ice down stream. The dam held, but most of the water and debris rushed under the mill, tearing out turbines, belts, pulleys, and some of the retaining walls of the dam. At this point, the dam was still providing mechanical, not electrical, power. An 1889 Sanborn map shows elevated cables running along the south side of the Kaw. These cables connected the driving force of the Kaw to the businesses the dam powered. Cables intermittently passed through pulley stations, transferring the motion on to the next station until the power reached its site. As such, what the river tore out from under the Douglas County Mills was attached to the businesses they powered. Neighboring businesses, too, saw their machinery first carried down the streets of Lawrence, then down the Kaw.

Since 1880, no major structural changes had been made. Rebuilding from the ice damage of 1888 provided Bowersock with an opportunity to improve his mill. This time Bowersock built the mill out from solid ground and into the river. In addition, Bowersock introduced four dynamos that turned raw power into electrical energy. (Remember, Edison completed the very first power generating station six years earlier in New York City.) Now, in addition to providing motive power, the Kaw was generating electricity. Notably, booster publications that sought to attract eastern business and investment gave the Bowersock Dam a full-page treatment.

Once again, the Kaw dealt Bowersock a significant blow. “The 1903 flood,” said Justin Hill, J. D. Bowersock’s grandson, “carried driftwood under the mill. There were men down there 24 hours a day pulling out driftwood to try and save it, but the driftwood finally pulled out the bottom and the whole thing fell in the river.” The damage was estimated at around $100,000, all uninsured. Bowersock repaired the dam, and again, Bowersock rebuilt bigger and better to withstand future floods. By this time the energy needs of Lawrence had far outstripped the 2,400 horse power capacity of the water wheels, but several local businesses continued using water power up until 1972. These businesses included the Flour Mills, the Lawrence Paper Co., the Lawrence Ice Plant, the Journal World, and the Bowersock Iron Works.

Disaster was forever looming on the frontier. In 1911, the Opera House that Bowersock had built burned and that same year a tornado swept through the riverfront area, doing damage to many of Bowersock’s properties. Bowersock pledged that this would never happen again. He rebuilt with concrete and brick. His new Opera House opened in 1912 (today known as Liberty Hall), and between 1903 and 1916 Bowersock Mills and Power replaced all but one of their buildings with concrete and brick structures, installing up-to-date dynamos for electrical generation to keep pace with the current trends in energy usage.

Justin DeWitt Bowersock went on to become the mayor of Lawrence from 1881-1885, was elected to the Kansas legislature in 1887, the Kansas Senate in 1895, and was the 2nd District’s Representative to Congress from 1899-1907. He died on October 27, 1922 and is interred at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence.

Modern Day Bowersock Mills and Power Co.

By 1941, the only manufacturers using electrical power from the Kaw were Lawrence Paper Company, Lawrence Iron Works, Bowersock Mills, the ice plant and the hydroelectric plant. After WWII, the Lawrence Iron Works was razed to make room for the new office and plant of the Lawrence Journal-World at 609 New Hampshire.

In 1951, the Kaw again flooded. This time the water was so high that the dam — or even ripples of disturbance on the surface as water rushed over it — could not be seen. Damage was done, but thanks to sturdier construction it was far less than in the 1903 flood.

The 1960’s and 1970’s saw deterioration in the Lawrence riverfront area. Businesses moved, including the Lawrence Paper Company. Its buildings were converted to small fleamarket/craft type shops. The Bowersock Opera House that had been sold to Dickinson Cinema after Bowersock’s death, and renamed the Jayhawker Theater in 1940, ceased operation in 1956 and was resurrected as a college tavern/nightclub (The Red Dog Inn) in the 1960’s. Consideration was given to razing it for a downtown motel during that same period. On June 13, 1968, Bowersock Mills and Power ceased operations as a mill. Their buildings were leased to a discount carpet store and KU Crew, the Jayhawk rowing team. Subsequent to 1972, all energy from the Bowersock water wheels was sold directly to Kansas Power and Light (now Westar Energy).

Like the Phoenix from the Fire

Fossil fuel, just as it had caused the demise of Bowersock Mills and Power, led to its resurrection in the mid-70’s. In October 1973, the Arab nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) led an international boycott against western nations that had supported Israel in the Arab-Israeli War. Energy prices skyrocketed! Gasoline tripled, even quadrupled in price – if you could find gasoline at all. Long lines formed at filling stations, with frequent fights breaking out between customers. In many regions, gasoline could only be purchased on either even or odd numbered days, depending on your license plate number. “Sorry Out of Gas” was a sign frequently seen in the bays of gas stations. The price of all other energy forms, including electricity, skyrocketed as well.

In response to the Energy Crisis, legislation was passed to encourage energy independence in the United States. The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) was passed decreeing that public electric utilities must buy excess power generated by small producers at the utility’s avoided cost: the incremental cost a utility would have to pay if the utility generated the electricity. Bowersock Mills and Power was once again a player! The turbines and generators were overhauled and the plant began producing enough power to provide electricity for up to 1000 homes (2,100 kW). Unfortunately, the area around the power plant was still blighted and the dam was in need of $375,000 in repairs.

Problems were multiple. The area downtown was blighted and developers would not take the high risk gamble of beginning projects in the neighborhood. This was partially due to the in-perpetuity grant of the levee leaving the ownership of much of the land in doubt. In addition, if the dam was not maintained, the water supply of the City of Lawrence was in jeopardy, as the city’s water intake was in the reservoir above the dam. Bowersock Mills and Power’s cashflow was not sufficient to undertake extensive repairs to the dam.

A seemingly unrelated set of problems the city was incurring contributed to a solution for Bowersock and the city. Lawrence was growing and city offices had outgrown their space at the Old Watkins Bank (now Watkins Museum at 11th & Massachusetts). City Hall had moved temporarily to the new First National Bank at 9th and Massachusetts, but it, too, was inadequate. A bond issue had been put before Lawrence voters in 1973 to combine the offices of the city and county government, but it had been defeated. Upon the defeat, Douglas County renovated the Old Courthouse, and the city was still left with inadequate office space. In 1977, City Manager Buford Watson, the City Commission, and the Hill family came to a satisfactory agreement for all parties.

Working together, the Hills and the City of Lawrence came to an agreement whereby the Darling grant of 1872 would be modified to return six acres of the Bowersock land to the city for construction of a City Hall, and an option on the dam power plant and maintenance shop within 50 years. If City Hall was built on the property, the site would cost just $1.00; if not, the site would cost $25,000.00. In return, the city agreed to maintain the Bowersock dam and granted a new thirty-year lease on the eastern 8 acres of the levee property.  The construction of City Hall, the addition of Bowersock Park (originally named Bosco Park for the Bowersock watchdog) west of the plant and north of City Hall, and the removal of blighted buildings in the neighborhood had positive effects on downtown Lawrence.  The Lawrence Journal-World expanded, the Eldridge Hotel was renovated and the old Bowersock Opera House became the Liberty Hall Theater. Just as the addition of water power at the Mills fueled the industrialization and expansion of Lawrence in the late 1800s, the agreement between the City of Lawrence and the Hill family has sparked the redevelopment of today’s downtown Lawrence.*

*This write-up draws heavily from Building History: The Consolidated Barb Wire Company Drawing Mill and The Industrial Riverfront of Lawrence, Kansas, Paul O. Caviness, November 1988.

1. Middleton, Kenneth A. Manufacturing in Lawrence, Kansas, 1854-1900 (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas, 1941), 84.

2. Council Chamber, Sept. 23, 1872: Dam Contract, City of Lawrence: Office of the City Clerk, Record Book “C”, Douglas County Historical Society, 92.

3. Middleton, Manufacturing in Lawrence, Kansas, 92.

4. Statement of J. D. Bowersock Referring to the Bowersock Mills and Power Company, Including Water Power at Lawrence, Kansas (May 1921), Spencer Collection, University of Kansas.

5. “Representative Men,” Lawrence Journal, January 11, 1885 Douglas County Historical Society, 2.

6. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Lawrence, Kansas (New York: Sanborn Map Co., 1883), 2. These maps were created by insurance companies so that insured properties could be assessed after damage.

7. Not until 1897 did Bowersock combine the Douglas County Mills, Pacific Mills and Lawrence Land and Water Power Co. to form The Bowersock Mills & Power Co.

8. E. F. Caldwell, A Souvenir History of Lawrence, Kansas, 1898 (Lawrence: n.d.).

List of Firsts

Bowersock Mills and Power Company

  • First and only water power on the Kansas River (still the only commercial waterpower in the state)
  • First modern flour mill in Kansas
  • First corrugated paper plant west of Mississippi River
  • First reinforced concrete fireproof building in Lawerence
  • First steamheated building in Lawrence
  • First passenger elevator in Lawrence
  • First sanitary sewer in Lawrence

Bowersock History in the News